The Problem with Forcing Kids to Succeed

The Problem with Forcing Kids to Succeed, Or: When We Want The Right Thing Too Much

I've always been fascinated by the end vs. means debate, as in which matters more to you, the end or the means, or does the end justify the means? Put another way, is the outcome more important than what you had to do to get there?

When I was in high school and undergrad, I was convinced, almost fervently, that the end, the outcome, was all that mattered. I believed this to be a righteous position -- if the end was an important, worthy goal. Usually, I would think about this in terms of politics. For instance, if the end is achieving marriage equality, then I was convinced that just about whatever had to be done, within the realm of reasonability, was worth achieving that outcome. I probably would have said the same about ending the war in Iraq, or passing universal health care -- things that I thought of as moral imperatives. "The fierce urgency of now," or something like that. 

The older I get and the more convinced I become that I was wrong about that. Two things have brought this to the forefront of my mind. First, yesterday I watched H. Con - 172, a classic episode of the greatest television show in human history, The West Wing. There's a part when Toby mentions to President Bartlet that he recently watched one of Bartlet's favorite movies, The Lion in Winter.

"I turned it on just as they got to the scene when Richard, Geoffrey and John were locked in the dungeon and Henry was coming down to execute them," Toby says. "Richard tells his brothers not to cower but to take it like men and Geoffrey says, 'You fool! As if it matters how a man falls down.' And Richard says, 'When the fall's all that's left, it matters a great deal.'"

It does matter a great deal. How you get there matters -- especially if you don't make it all the way.

There's another big story in the news that speaks volumes about this dilemma. There was an amazing piece co-reported by NPR and and WAMU, a public radio station in D.C., called "What Really Happened At The School Where Every Graduate Got Into College," and if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. Basically, it's an analysis of what happens when adults decide that the end is all that matters -- high school graduation and college acceptance at all costs. They forced the kids to succeed, whether they liked it or not, whether they deserved it or not, and whether or not it was in their best interest. They forced kids to succeed, even if they weren't prepared, and even if they didn't even succeed. Teachers were pressured (or coerced) into passing kids who didn't deserve it, even if it was against district policy. It was a disaster.

Reading it made me feel overwhelmed and sad. Sometimes even the bright, shining, hopeful examples of what's possible are proof that what's possible isn't always what's best. Sometimes the unintended consequences of positives outcomes are not worth the cost of achieving them. The case of Ballou High School underscores the inescapable fact that when it comes to education reform, there are no easy answers. These things are hard, and they have to be approached with humility and patience.